On Saturday, following Mizzou’s football practice, Tigers head coach Eli Drinkwitz addressed the media expressing his concerns about the welfare and mental health of student-athletes in sports such as baseball, softball, and volleyball after rival conferences announced the expansion of their leagues starting in 2024.
The Big Ten added Oregon and Washington as new members Friday. The league’s presidents and chancellors added the schools, which, along with USC and UCLA, will officially join the Big Ten on Aug. 2, 2024. The Big 12’s presidents and chancellors voted unanimously to add Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State on Friday as well. Those moves will bring the Big 12 to 16 members, in line with the SEC, and the Big Ten will expand to 18 schools ranging in four time zones from New Jersey and Maryland to Washington, Oregon, and California.
“My question is did we count the cost,” started Drinkwitz. “I’m not talking about a financial cost, I’m talking did we count the cost for the student-athletes involved in this decision.”
The travel is more strenuous and lengthy for non-football teams. For example, a football team will take a chartered flight on Friday, play their game on Saturday, and return that day in time to be at their training complexes on Sunday. In the example of baseball and softball, those teams fly commercial and are subject to delays, changing flights, and sometimes additional bus rides from an airport to campus. Their stays are more extended, usually lasting over a weekend and their return flights after Sunday games can sometimes return them to their home campus late evenings and overnight.
While Drinkwitz was pointing to social media posts from softball players in Pac-12 teams about choosing schools so they could play closer to home, and fearful of the possibility of taking cross-country flights, the University of Missouri has scheduled games that have kept their teams on the road for extended periods of time. For example, this past softball season, the Tigers opened the year on February 10 in Clearwater, Florida for five games between Feb 10-12. The Tigers then stayed in Florida for a Wednesday game in Orlando before heading to Miami for a second-weekend tournament. Following five games in Miami, the Mizzou softball team played in a tournament across the country in Palm Springs, CA starting on Thursday, Feb 23 and concluding on Saturday, Feb 25. In that first month of the season, Mizzou softball players were out of state for 16 days and played 16 games.
The timing of Drinkwitz’s comments comes after two rival conferences expand when college athletics has clearly imposed grueling schedules in the past.
“I thought the portal was closed?” Asked Drinkwitz. “Oh, that’s just for the student-athletes. The adults in the room get to do whatever they want, apparently.”
While on the surface it sounds absurd to have a conference with teams on both the east and west coast it remains to be seen how much travel, baseball, softball, and volleyball teams will actually need to make across four-time zones. In the case of the Big Ten, where there are 18 schools, it would be near impossible to schedule conference games against 17 opponents so it’s conceivable schools like Washington and Oregon will not need to travel to Rutgers, Penn State, and Maryland or vice-versa. The travel times for those teams may not be much more than what they are already used to.
For example, there are currently ten Big Ten schools east of Ann Arbor, home of the Michigan Wolverines. A flight from Seattle (Washington Huskies) to Ann Arbor is 3 hours and 38 minutes (with a tailwind). A flight from Seattle to Minneapolis where the Gophers play is 3 hours and 11 minutes. Currently, in the Pac 12 when Washington plays UCLA or USC a flight from Seattle to L.A. is roughly just 20 minutes shorter at 2 hours and 50 minutes.
A nine-team division of UCLA, USC, Oregon, Washington, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois is very likely. None of those schools are more than two time zones away.
What also needs to be considered, is if a west coast school finishes a softball on Eastern time and heads back home west, a 4-hour, 14-minute flight (in headwinds), will still get them back on campus early evening with the change in three-time zones. While it’s not going to get any easier for those student-athletes it may not get much more difficult than what west coast schools are already used to. Let’s see what the schedules are like when these conferences expand before rushing to judgment. There is no denying, baseball, softball, volleyball (and Olympic sport) athletes are pawns in the big-money game of college football. They will continue to deal with long flights and long weekends. The concerns student-athletes of those sports bring up continue to be valid, but the expansion of the Big Ten and Big 12 may not necessarily make the situation worse than what it already is.
I would have liked to have heard Drinkwitz speak up against his own conference and question the “adults” when the SEC poached Texas and Oklahoma–becoming one of the first dominos to fall in this second round of wide college expansion. I thought this podium-pounding monologue by Drinkwitz was more of a pro-SEC attack on rival conferences looking to narrow the gap in football between the SEC and the rest of the country under the guise of watching out for student-athletes.